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Starting STEM Early The Need for Vertical Alignment

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is a bit of a buzzword in the education world these days – and rightfully so! With America in the midst of a STEM crisis, the need for more students to pursue STEM careers has never been greater. Teachers must establish a strong academic foundation for students in the STEM subjects – and as important as middle and high school grade levels are in preparing students for college and the workforce, research suggests that building a STEM foundation should start as early as the elementary grade levels. NMSI’s STEM Student Engagement Director Lynn Rogers stresses the need for a stronger STEM foundation in elementary schools, as well as for better professional development support for teachers. Her goal – and NMSI’s goal – is to hook students early on in math and science.
The importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
According to Rogers, STEM is the integration of science, technology, engineering and math in a real world setting and in real life problems. For engineers and scientists, problem solving, creative thinking, and modification of our world are every day activities – but children also do these things on a regular basis. Children instinctively ask “why” about everything and usually what they are inquiring about can be related to one of the science disciplines. “Why does it rain? Why do balls bounce? Why am I growing?” are just a few examples of questions that can be answered by STEM. But as children learn to question deeper, they begin to intuitively use mathematic skills to gather data and justify what they are learning internally. In other words, STEM is not just an acronym of abstract subjects; it is our natural way of thinking and learning.
The Need for a Stronger Elementary Foundation in STEM
Research shows that as a student advances into middle school, opinions on science change drastically; in fourth grade, one-third of students lose interest in the subject; by eighth grade, that number jumps up to 50%, effectively narrowing the potential STEM pipeline by half before students even reach high school. These numbers are startling, and they reveal the very real need of providing students with stronger support in STEM before they reach the higher grade levels. Therefore, we must start teaching STEM at an early age in order to nurture children’s natural curiosity; by doing this, we can harness the power of ‘why’ and make STEM real to them.
Engaging students in hands-on activities and inquiry-based lessons – like NMSI’s new free lessons – are superb ways to hook students on STEM in a non-threatening way. Children love to discover new things; they want to know how things work and how they can make them work. It is this intrinsic curiosity that makes them view creative activities as playtime, not school work. Rogers takes the notion of student engagement a step further by adding that “the earlier a student is exposed to STEM projects, the more comfortable they will be using the skills they learn and applying those skills to their environment, thus making them more successful in STEM fields.”
In addition to NMSI’s lessons, there are other great resources for teachers to help hook students and make STEM education come alive for children:
◦Sesame Street is mixing monsters and Muppets with math and science in the Little Discoverers series, a “digital destination” for children to engage with STEM content.
◦GoldieBlox aims to close the gender gap in STEM by igniting that natural curiosity within young girls for engineering projects and activities.
◦Another initiative to close the gender gap is Roominate, which lets young girls act as architects and engineers as they assemble their own doll houses.
Next Steps for Schools and Teachers
If there is one thing NMSI can’t stress enough, and one thing we keep hearing from other educators, it’s that teachers need more training – especially in STEM subjects. “Many elementary teachers limit science instruction because they are either inexperienced in science or, since it’s not being tested on like math and English in elementary school, it gets pushed aside,” says Rogers. The inexperience of a teacher can also lead to anxiety, which is another reason why STEM education is often generalized at the elementary level. Therefore, elementary teachers need programs that will help them overcome their anxiety; they need to be immersed in STEM training that gives them the confidence to be successful in the classroom; and they need engaging resources that not only excite their students, but excite themselves as well.
We at NMSI have been providing middle school and high school teachers with such training for years, but now we have begun this quest in the elementary grades. We provide motivating, integrated, non-threating professional training that the elementary teacher can take back to their classroom, incorporate, and replicate within their daily instruction and curriculum. We need to hook more students on STEM, and the only way we’re going to do that is to help hook our teachers as well.